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by Peter Moskos

October 20, 2009

US Marshals: TV

I've got nothing against US Marshals. Or maybe I do.

I just got off a flight from San Francisco to New York on my favorite airline. Why do I like Jet Blue? Because they have TV. I love TV. And Satellite TV turns a 6-hour flight into a dream.

I mean, I love being in a seat with nothing to do but drink and watch Anthony Bourdain, the Dog Whisper, and whatever else is on all the pseudo-educational channels. Man lights fire in the wild after eating raw Zebra? Useful survival skills. Dan Zimmern eats bugs? Delicious! Fisherman pulling the ocean catch? Keep it real! Fox News is still pushing the Obama/Ayers connection? Hell yeah!

Today I didn't have as much time for all those gems because I could watch not one but two good baseball games. Yeah, I was the dork keeping score in seat 3F. But it makes me happy so I don't care what you think.

Between innings and pitching changes--I love baseball, but there's no reason for a game to be longer than two-and-a-half hours--I watched, among other things, US Marshals: Operation Falcon. The show bothered me.

It's a show that shows nothing but a bunch of heavily armed government agents coming out of military vehicles and busting into homes. There's always drugs involved. And the Marshals are mostly white and the criminals mostly black. But OK, reality isn't always politically correct. That's not what bothers me. But I notice it.

The show never asks the big question. Why? Who are we doing this for? How many of these warrants really need to be served by a SWAT team? Is this something that the local police can't do? Do the non-criminals in these neighborhoods really want the US Marshals busting down doors, throwing in flash grenades, and treating everybody like wanted criminals?

The questions certainly don't come from the deep-voiced narrator that treats such police actions as normal, standard, and necessary to protect "us" from "them." Maybe that's what bothers me most.

The militarization of police is something to be questioned, not glorified. Sometimes QRTs and SWAT teams are needed, no doubt. But the image (and the reality) of soldier-like-police busting down door after door simply to serve warrants? I don't like it.

I don't like the rationalization of the US Marshals talking about how good they are for the community. I don't like how they act and talk like they understand the way "they" work and the way "they" talk. I've assisted in some of the raids. Mostly by standing out back, using a telephone pole for cover, hoping the bad guy wouldn't make a run for it. But hell, if I were wanted and I saw them busting in the front door and me standing out back, I'd make a run for it.

No, the Marshals and the FBI don't know the neighborhood or the people. Hell, I didn't know the neighborhood of the people all that well. But I knew it a whole lot better than them. At least I was there eight hours every night. They just roll up, make jokes about how horrible it must be for poor fools like me to police there, do their thing, and leave.

Marshals are hard working men and women (mostly men) doing a dangerous job. As a former cop, I appreciate that probably more than most. But the overuse of military tactics shown in the show is one of main reasons non-criminals in crime-ridden communities hate the police. Sure, sometimes they catch the bad guy (and sometimes they don't), but in the grand scheme it doesn't work. I can't help but see the futility in all that effort to take one guy, one gun, or one kilo off the streets. Another man in prison; another criminal job opening in the hood.

I don't root for the bad buys. I'm happy when I see them in cuffs. But I also know that when the Marshals roll away, 20 deep, the neighborhood isn't suddenly going to be a better place. It's going to keep on being the same place, a dangerous place. But now with one more person in prison and more boarded up front door.

There has to be a better way.


Marc S. said...

Good topic, good post

Pretty much every police show that's come out recently has been nothing but high-fiving frat boys in black ninja garb slinging machine guns, busting down doors and tasing people. The only exception is the show where they use the same formula but with women.

Back in the day there was Cops and despite selective editing, it still managed to capture the monotony of police work. I'm sure as a former cop watching the US Marshals do their thing probably gave you the same gross feeling i had catching 10 minutes of NBC's Trauma (Emergency! it was not). The current trend of TV shows glorifying the militarization of the police is as concerning as the militarization itself.

Anonymous said...

I don't like the fact that they don't show the raids where the people turn out to be innocent.

This systematically distorts perception.

They also should not have given Ryan Frederick ten years. There is no way he knew that he had killed a policeman and there should be no duty to wait and see. If that jury had found him innocent, like they should have, then that would have gone a long way towards ending the stupidity, and, yes, I don't think stupidity is too strong of a word. Marshals and police act stupidly when it comes to serving search warrants now.

Hopefully people will start using acid traps and really put an end to the nonsense once and for all.

DJK said...

Hmm...there's a group that sets up fake grow ops and then films the cops busting in looking stupid but I can't remember what's it's called. Anyone?

DJK said...


Jeff N said...

The types of raids shown in these types of shows scare me. I am not sure that the laws which allow for such raids take fully into account how a law abiding/armed homeowner is supposed to respond.

And that isn't even considering your point of the impact on the neighborhood. I am just looking at it from the perspective of someone whose house they would be raiding because of some false information or a mistake.

Marc S. said...

DJK, that would be kopbusters. It's another project by former narc Barry Cooper or "Never Get Busted" fame. Good guy in my book, the department he did the sting on got really bent out of shape about it, much to my amusement.

Anon, Fredrick got screwed because he had a little bit of personal use pot on him and the cops used this to justify the raid. He got thrown under the bus and shouldn't have seen a day in prison.

Jeff, as to the law-abiding armed homeowner question, I think Cheye Calvo said it best when he was interviewed by Radley Balko on how the home invasion perpitrated by the PG County Sheriff's office would have gone different if he had a gun: "I'd be dead"

They have body armor and machine guns, if you act in a logical manner (like Mr Ayers) and try to defend yourself from violent attackers, you probably end up dead. On the bright side, a lot of small town Swat teams tend to train for the lowest common denominator and if you train hard and invest in the right equipment, you can probably live long enough to get the needle.